Editor’s note: Triangle entrepreneur and thought leader Jes Averhart, CEO of Jes & Co and host of the “Reinvention Road Trip,” is a regular WRAL TechWire contributor who explores topics pertaining to reinvention, especially prompted by the onset of the global pandemic. Her columns appear weekly.  


RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – If you’ve been following us here at TechWire, you are familiar with our analogy for burnout… a never-ending marathon where somebody keeps moving the damn finish line.

Today, I want to talk to my cheerleaders who are standing on the sidelines holding bottles of water and signs that say, “Find Your Happy Pace!”  I know you mean well but be careful you’re not unintentionally slipping into the realm of “cruel optimism.”

Cruel optimism is a phrase invented by Lauren Berlant and adopted by Johann Hari author of Stolen Focus.  He describes it as taking a really big problem with deep causes in our culture – like burnout and offering a simplistic individual solution in upbeat language.

Here’s how it plays out for our marathon runners.

Jes Averhart

You’re hot, tired and on mile marker ‘who knows what at this point’.  You’re scouring the countryside for a viable off-ramp when friends on the sideline call out.

“Hey! You look tired, get some electrolytes in ya!”  and

“You’re doing great, just visualize the finish line!”

So you follow their advice. The result?

You’re hydrated. Check.

You enjoyed the British fellow telling you how to manifest your goals in your nifty meditation app. Check.

But you’re still running.

This is what we do when someone tells us they’re burned out. We say,

  • “Just take a bubble bath.”
  • “Just go for a walk.”
  • “Just have a glass of wine.”
  • “Just meditate.”

Cruel optimism is when someone says, ‘I’ve got a solution for you!’ and, in effect, distracts you from the reality and complexity of the real problem.

For the record, I love taking care of me. I whole-heartedly believe in bubble baths, walks around the lake and a glass of wine on the front porch. The problem is when our friends, family and colleagues strongly suggest that if you only did more self-care, you wouldn’t be burned out. And this simply is not true. It also falsely implies that we’re failing if we’re still struggling after a 10 minute meditation.

Hari suggests that the alternative to cruel optimism is not pessimism. It’s authentic optimism.  This approach helps us honestly investigate the cause of burnout and collectively build solutions.

Using last week’s thought exercises as a foundation, I’ve listed five compassionate questions you can ask your friends and colleagues who are experiencing burnout.

  • Are you still feeling invested in the work and fulfilled by its mission?
  • Do you have boundaries in place that allow you to love yourself and others at the same time?
  • Does this need to be done right now? Does this need to be done by you?
  • What have you done for yourself today?
  • Is there anything I can do to support you?

It’s time to go beyond the easy fixes and dive in to conversations that are supportive and potentially transformative. This week, take the time to open the door of honest and vulnerable dialogue.

If the goal is to get to the finish line, this is the next right step.

More from Jes Averhart

Burned out? Ready to quit? Be wary – ‘Great Resignation’ may backfire on you